It’s a Main Line mystery: Twin buildings – perhaps the most opulent ever built in these parts – sitting idle for years in the heart of Devon.
Ripe for the taking but no one’s biting.
What happened to this modern-day Taj Mahal, its hushed, lifeless halls worlds away from the bustling Whole Foods just across the street?
Surely, the land alone – nearly two acres on a primo patch of Rt. 30 – is worth millions.
Alas, the ornate arched walls at 840 W. Lancaster Ave. can’t talk.
But their owner can.
And the story he tells fascinates, although we’ve heard such tales before: A dreamer spends a small fortune to bring his vision lovingly and painstakingly to life, only to witness its crumble and collapse.
Our storyteller, the man behind the mystery, is Dr. Matt Vegari, 67, retired neurologist,
Gladwyne resident and Renaissance Man of the first order.
A gourmand and wine connoisseur, Vegari had a singular dream: to bring fine French dining, a world-class wine cellar, and traditional dishes from his native Iran to the Main Line.
In the mid ’90s, our fine-dining scene was meager. More often than not, formal dining meant a trip to town and reservations at Striped Bass, the Fountain or Le Bec Fin.
“Friends kept telling me to put my money where my mouth is, so I ended up being a fool and doing this,” Vegari says, laughing. (Throughout our two-hour chat, he keeps a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.)
He settled on a Devon location: the old Martini’s restaurant/bar. According to Vegari, the property was by then “a dumpy place with thousands of mice in the basement,” but it came with a liquor license and a central Main Line address – near the Great Valley and King of Prussia corporate corridors and just a Blue Route-ride from Center City.
Just one problem: the Martini plot was too small for Vegari’s grand restaurant/retail vision.
So he embarked on a two-year shopping spree, patiently buying out seven adjacent businesses in and around Berkley Road, among them a boutique, a mini-mart, a gas station and a pack-and-ship store.
With eight parcels joined as one, he asked an architect to put his dream – two palatial buildings with underground parking – to paper.
The first building’s ground floor would house the formal French dining room, La Jonquille (“the daffodil”), a less formal brasserie, a chef’s table with a view of the kitchen and an exclusive wine cellar for private dining. Upstairs would hold a Persian-themed restaurant, Shiraz, named for the picturesque Iranian city of Vegari’s youth, and banquet space for 250.
The second building would be leased for retail and, beneath it, would be multi-level parking for both.
So elaborate was Vegari’s vision that it would take another three years to come to life: one year to secure township permits, two more to build.
Blueprints borrowed from his travels: rows of arches and columns from Jardin des Tuileries in Paris; mosaic flourishes from St. John in the Caribbean and the south of France.
Materials and workmanship were topnotch.
No expense was spared with Vegari himself directing every detail.
Walls were constructed of hand-laid granite stones and decorative bricks. Shimmering turquoise tiles were imported from the Middle East. Below-grade parking required pricey all-steel construction, extensive excavation and the installation of multiple French drains. “I went through hell to put in underground parking,” Vegari says.
As the buildings rose – unlike any the Main Line had ever seen, Vegari and his wife, Sheila, meticulously planned the interior.
The couple chose everything themselves: rich carpets and tapestries, crystal chandeliers dangling from 21-ft. ceilings, the elegant French flourishes downstairs, the authentic Middle Eastern art and artifacts upstairs.
“It was mind-boggling for people who weren’t interior designers,” Vegari recalls. “My emotional investment was huge … this was my passion project. I put my heart and soul in it.”
Not to mention, a big chunk of his bank account. All in, Vegari spent $14 million on his Devon dream. His broker tells us Vegari’s investment today would easily top $20 million.
The restaurants opened in late 1999 and, in Vegari’s words, were “a smash” from Day One.
New to the business, Vegari had recruited the best. La Jonquille’s chef de cuisine and pastry chef came from Le Bec Fin; Shiraz’ chef was brought in from LA. And overseeing both, an exceptionally dedicated general manager, who seemingly flew between floors.
La Jonquille’s formal French dining room hummed with high rollers and expense accounts. Area gourmands, among them noted foodie Norm Cohn, became regulars.
Reviews by Zagat and Philly Mag were stellar.
Wine Spectator named La Jonquille and La Shiraz among the “best restaurants in the world for wine lovers” in 2001.
Weekend tables were booked weeks in advance; a seat at the chef’s table meant a three-month wait. With 25,000 bottles all handpicked by Vegari, La Jonquille’s wine list was the largest in the region and the second largest in the state. Several bottles sold for $20,000 or more, although some could be had for $12.
Those who found la Jonqjuille perhaps too foofoo or pricey headed upstairs for an authentic, exotic Persian experience at Shiraz.
In the early going, Vegari’s dream seemed prescient: the Main Line was indeed starved for fine dining and zesty Middle Eastern fare.
He leased the equally ornate building next door to Advanced Dermatology and Plastic Surgery, a husband-and-wife medical team that, according to Vegari, spent more than $2 million to put a state-of-the-art facility in a 10,000 sq. ft. “vanilla shell.”
When the two divorced and folded their practice, Vegari leased to Ilona Csaky, who ran Ilona Day Spa, an upscale spa/salon on the premises until 2013 or 2014, he says.
But a year and a half into Vegari’s venture, things began to unravel.
The restaurants’ GM left abruptly and proved impossible to replace.
The kitchen erupted with power struggles.
Food and service slipped.
And the staff was stealing, outfoxing elaborate security systems.
“I couldn’t be hands on,” Vegari explains. “I was working 90 hours a week as a neurologist, teaching and seeing patients.” Determined to ferret out dishonest employees, he planted undercover “moles.” Still, “theft was everywhere,” he says. Vegari prefers we not put a dollar figure on his losses. But we can tell you: they were significant.
Under the best of circumstances, the restaurant business is rough.
But executing perfection night after night in four dining spaces and two kitchens spread over 14,250 sq. ft. with an absentee owner, revolving-door management, and pervasive theft?
Well, that was impossible.
Unable to right his ship, Vegari closed and reopened La Jonquille twice with new managers in 2002, then locked the doors for good in 2003.
He closed Shiraz at the same time, reviving it a a few years later then shutting down permanently in 2007.
For a while, signs of life continued upstairs. Long & Foster realtors leased part of upstairs banquet hall. Dr. Vegari occupied another section, seeing low-income neurology patients on weekends on a pro bono basis.
But Long & Foster moved on and Vegari retired. These days, the only action is in the parking garage, which has been leased to a car dealership.
Built to last, the twin steel-and-stone structures stand tall and at the ready, their interiors astonishingly frozen in time. Tables, chairs, linens, artwork, custom china, kitchen equipment, much of the vast wine holdings – everything at La Jonquille is exactly as it was when the lights went out in 2003, right down to a rack of used cookware awaiting a push through the dishwasher.
Improbably, the premises are immaculate, neither dusty nor dreary. You can almost feel the life and laughter that once coursed through the building, the warmth of this chilly place, now kept at an economical 50 degrees. Vegari spends thousands each year to keep the liquor license in place and the HVAC running.
Across the shared courtyard, the oversized salon/spa is also untouched, still furnished with imported ostrich leather chairs, high-end massage tables and skincare equipment.
“My hope has always been lease to someone good, someone high end who can move right in and run the place either as two separate restaurants or as one together. And to have spa and retail,” Vegari says. “It could be run very profitably.”
Unlike most, Vegari never tried to liquidate. He’d only get a fraction of what he paid and he believed his furniture and fixtures, so carefully chosen, would add to the property’s appeal.
Undoubtedly, there’s sentiment at work here, too.
Vegari’s younger son Matthew, Harvard ’17 and valedictorian of Episcopal Academy’s Class of ’13, accompanied his father to our meeting. The younger Vegari fondly recalls the “huge parties my parents hosted here” and his “very busy father doing wine tastings all day” to set the proper food pairings. When EA friends heard that his family was behind the exotic buildings on Lancaster Ave., they were unfailingly intrigued. “I remember it being a pretty big deal. Everyone talked about the wine cellar. The menu was unreal.”
Did anyone suggest the buildings were perhaps too lavish for buttoned-down Devon?
Not even once, says Dr. Vegari. “Everybody loved it from what I’d hear … It became a cornerstone of the Main Line.”
He’s now on his third real estate agent, Todd Sussman of Collier’s International, who arranged our tour of the buildings and our meeting with Dr. Vegari and his son.
Their hope is our story will bring renewed attention to the property that, despite its grandiosity, has managed to blur into the landscape. Out-of-towners may turn their heads, but we locals drive by with hardly a glance.
Restaurants have shown interest in the place but never signed on: Georges Perrier in the early days, and, more recently, Seasons 52 and Del Frisco’s. At one point, a caterer thought about turning the spa building into an event venue. Marc Vetri and Stephen Starr have talked about hosting pop-up charity dinners in the restaurants.
The usual suspects – Wawa and residential developers – have also cast longing looks, but Vegari says they offered only a fraction of the property’s value. And until now, he’s stood firm: No one was going to knock down what he’d worked so hard to build.
These days, though, Vegari is wavering. Ideally, some or all of his property gets leased for $35 – $40/sq. ft. With some updating, he knows “it can be very profitable.”
But if that restaurant or spa operator never arrives, he’s prepared – at long last – to sell, providing the price is right. Every day he holds out is another day he loses money.
Still, if he sells to a developer and his beloved towers come tumbling down, a piece of his heart will crumble with them.
“I’ll never come to this area of the Main Line again. I couldn’t look at it,” he says.
“Putting the money aside,” Vegari insists he has no regrets. “I did something worthwhile for the town and for the Main Line here. From a dumpy place, I built this. I’m proud of what I did and I’d probably do it again.”
Bull’s eye in Devon
Your prayers have been answered: Target is coming to the old Devon KMart.
More good news: the whole shopping center is getting a little facelift.
The retailer says it will open a small-format store in the Devon Square shopping center at 704 W. Lancaster Ave.
It’s the second smallish Target coming to the Main Line. The retailer’s also headed to downtown Ardmore, at the corner of Lancaster and Ardmore Ave.
At 56,000 sq. ft., the Devon target will be bigger than Ardmore’s 31,000 sq. ft. store but less than half the size of full-size Targets, which average 130,000 to 140,000 sq. feet.
The Devon location will house a Starbucks and will sell the usual roundup of groceries (including healthy choices) along with personal and home décor items “customized” to the community, according to a news release. The location will also function as a pick-up stop for online orders.
Target is taking two-thirds of the old KMart, on the side closest to Acme. The remaining “end cap” space is not yet leased.
Dave McManus, a VP with shopping center owner Westover Companies, tells SAVVY he’s been negotiating with Target for about a year.
“We couldn’t have a better tenant taking the space. It will be a real asset to the community.”
To sweeten the deal for Acme (which, after all, sells some of the same stuff), the supermarket’s storefront will get exterior renovations, the parking lot will get updated lighting, and landscaping will be upgraded.
“The whole center will look more current,” McManus says.
Because the Ardmore Target is being built from scratch, with apartments above it, it won’t be finished until mid 2019.
In Devon, the timeline is shorter. Target is simply renovating – the building footprint stays the same. We’re told the new store should be up and running by October.
New federal indictment for former Radnor official
Things have gone from horrifically bad to even worse for disgraced former Radnor Board of Commisioners President Phil Ahr.
According to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, a grand jury found evidence that Ahr (known as DaddyX” and “DaddyXX”) distributed child pornography across state lines, received such images in Nov. 2013 and June 2017, and had in his possession pornography involving children under age 12.
He’s scheduled to be tried on various criminal counts in Delaware County court on April 23.
Mixed reviews – per usual – for latest PA congressional district map
Republicans (and Trump) hate it; Dems love it.
But here’s what few dispute about the new plan issued this week by the PA Supreme Court:
- The districts – at least on paper – look more compact and cohesive.
- The new map gives each of the suburban Philly counties a clear-cut, go-to representative in Congress.
- The map boosts Dems chances to retake the U.S. House in 2018.
Key takeways for Main Liners:
- Once chopped up into five districts, heavily Democratic Montco is now mostly one, with its own representative and its own district number (the 4th). At press time, State Sen. Daylin Leach, who lives in Montco, had not yet announced whether he’d run in the 4th.
- The new 5th district encompasses all of Delco, including all of Wayne, aka the town with feet in three counties. The 5th also includes Bob Brady’s old stomping grounds in South Philly, which will likely tilt the whole district toward the Dems.
- All of Chesco (plus Reading ’cause Chesco isn’t populous enough) now make up the reconfigured 6th. No doubt they’re grinning over at Chrissy Houlihan’s headquarters. Experts agree the new 6th gives the Devon Democrat a better shot at unseating U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, whose “GOP-lean district” is now considered a “strong Democratic opportunity.” Some folks are suggesting Costello should run in the nearby 9th, which looks to be more GOP friendly.
Republicans are crying foul because the map came from the Democratic-controlled PA Supreme Court and not the Republican-controlled state legislature. It’s just another gerrymander, they say.
In case you haven’t been following: All this comes after the high court threw out the district map that’s been in effect since the GOP-controlled legislature and GOP governor approved it in 2011, calling it an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. Justices gave legislators only a few weeks to come up with a new map, which Gov. Wolf promptly vetoed, as expected, last week.
The new map put forth by the court will be in effect for the May 15 primary – assuming it withstands Repubicans’ court challenges and calls for justices’ impeachment.
To help us sort through this gerrymander tug of war, we called on the Malvern man who’s been sounding the drumbeat for “Fair Districts” for the last 16 months.
Lawrence Husick has spoken before 30 groups across southeastern PA on behalf of the non-partisan activist group, Fair Districts PA.
He calls the new map “a step in the right direction” for a state that he calls among “the most egregiously gerrymandered” in the country.
The new plan passes muster with the PA constitution, Husick says, because the new districts are compact, contiguous, roughly equal in population, and respect county/municipal boundaries as much as possible.”
But – and it’s a big but – he takes issue with the process. Neither the courts nor the legislature should be in the business of deciding voting boundaries because both parties gerrymander, he says. They just can’t help themselves.
Sounds reasonable to us. Politicians simply shouldn’t be drawing their own district lines.
In case you haven’t heard, Fair Districts PA is pushing for an independent, transparent and impartial Citizen’s Committee (4 Rs, 4 Ds and 3 Indie/Third party) to draw the maps. (PA redistricts every ten years, after each census.)
The movement’s gathering speed on the Main Line. Lower Merion, Narberth, Malvern borough, Radnor and Haverford officials have all passed resolutions supporting Fair Districts’ proposals. Led by Husick, Fair Districts’ folks turned out in force for this week’s Tredyffrin Supervisors’ meeting. The motion was tabled until the Supes’ March meeting. (Hmmm. What say you, Easttown?)
And just this week, Pa. Sen. Warren Kampf (a Republican) showed a becoming indie streak, announcing he’ll co-sponsor the Fair Districts-backed bill, HB 722, joining some 100 other legislators from both sides of the aisle.
The two bills (SB 22 and HB722) were introduced in early 2017. But so far, they’ve languished in Republican-controlled committees. After all, why should the party in charge consider a change when the map (until now) has been so darn favorable?
Thumbs up for planned hotel and outpatient center in Radnor
Penn Medicine’s plans to take over 26 acres on King of Prussia Rd. near the Blue Route have taken a giant step forward.
Radnor Commissioners have approved the health system’s preliminary development plan for the old Wyeth Laboratories site.
Penn Med has a permit to demolish the old Wyeth buildings. In their place, it proposes to build a 250,000 sq. ft. ambulatory care center, a 75,000 sq. ft. hotel, a 150,000 sq. ft. office building and two sizable parking garages.
The good news for Radnor: Even though the health system is a nonprofit, it has agreed to pay Radnor taxes. To ease local traffic – which is already a bear – Penn Med plans to add traffic signals and widen King of Prussia Road. Construction is slated to begin this summer and the new buildings should debut in 2020.
The BOC vote on Feb. 12 was 4 to 1, with one commissioner abstaining and another absent.
But that lone no vote was a loud one, reports Main Line Media News.
It came from Commissioner Richard Booker, who spent about a half hour airing his beefs – complete with slideshow – relating to the potential environmental, sewage and traffic impact of Penn Med’s proposal. Booker has also filed a lawsuit to block the zoning change Radnor approved that allows Penn Med to redevelop the property.
Gladwyne doc will pay us back
Add Gladwyne’s David Shulkin, U.S. Secretary for Veteran’s Affairs, to the list of Trump Cabinet members who’ve come under fire for travel expenses.
Shulkin and his wife, dermatologist Merle Bari, took a 10-day, $122,334 trip to Europe last summer that some say may not have been completely on the up and up, moneywise.
Which comes as a bit of a shock to many, as Shulkin has long enjoyed a stellar rep.
The purpose of the trip were veterans’ healthcare meetings in London and Copenhagen.
The issue – according to the VA’s Inspector General – is whether the couple mixed too much pleasure with business.
Specifically, the Inspector General is looking into allegations that Shulkin’s chief of staff doctored an email to create a pretext for taxpayers to pay for his wife’s part of the trip. He’s also looking at whether Shulkin’s acceptance of a friends’ offer of Wimbledon tickets was improper. The couple also spent at least half of the trip sightseeing, according to the Washington Post.
But Shulkin is fuming, calling the investigation “outrageous” and one that “reeks of an agenda.”
Shulkin says he’ll reimburse taxpayers $4,300 for his wife’s airfare and will pay his friend back for the tennis tickets. His chief of staff has since retired and been replaced.
Just this week, Trump gave Shulkin the OK to purge “subversive” staff, i.e. conservative critics of the VA’s policy direction. Shulkin is the only holdover from the Obama administration serving in Trump’s cabinet.
Bellying up to a new barre in Paoli
Branded barre workouts are so big at Paoli’s Purenergy, the fitness facility needs a whole new studio. (Let’s see: there’s Buff Barre, Booty Barre, Up Barre, Pilates Barre, Sports Barre…)
Purenergy is putting the finishing touches on a new, dedicated barre studio in the old Sweet Pose Yoga space in the same shopping center, the Depot Shoppes behind Starbucks. (Sweet Pose moved next to the Paoli CVS.)
For Purenergy’s barre-istas, it’s fab news. Good-bye, wait lists and too-cozy classes. Hello, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and extra room to relevé.
The new 900 sq. ft. studio opens March 1, the same day Purenergy will host a “Beauty Bash” Girls Night Out.
This and That
A timely post-Parkland happening: Purenergy Studio in Paoli will host “Active Shooter Response” training on Wed. March 7, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Attendees of all ages will be trained in quick-thinking, life-saving tactics in the event of an active shooter, aggressive intruder, terror attack or other violent event. Open to the public, the workshop will also address the unique challenges specific to K-12 schools and will be led by black-belt Liberty HaganaH instructor David Murray. The fee is $25 for adults; $10 for children. Click here to register.
Get a jump on those lazy, hazy days at Suburban Square’s “Winter Beach Bash” Saturday, March 3. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. soak in everything but the rays: live music, a photo booth, face painting and crafts for the kiddos. Presented in partnership with Alex’s Lemonade Stand, the Ardmore bash will include a showstopper: a giant sand sculpture that’s being created over two days.
A SAVVY shoutout to Teresa’s Next Door in Wayne, just named a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist in the “Outstanding Bar Program” category, beating out 20,000 entries. The North Wayne Ave. watering hole/gastropub has been collecting kudos for years. Just last fall, the Inky’s Craig LaBan gave it a three-bell review, writing that it’s “blossomed into what may be the single greatest place to drink in the suburbs.” A panel of 600 judges will choose the finalists March 14 and the winners April 27.
We’re hearing great things about the two-artist show, “Shared Space,” at the Wayne Art Center through March 10. Look for landscapes by the fabulously talented painters Valerie Craig, a Villanova resident who’s won a bushel of national and international awards, and Martin Campos, who teaches at the art center and PAFA. Watch them at work this Saturday, Feb. 24 at 1 p,m. at the Wayne Farmer’s Market. Or catch their free Artists’ Talk at the art center March 9 at 12:30 p.m.
DineKOP returns for a fourth year March 5 – 11 with a record number of restaurants offering three-course dinners for $20, $30 or $40 and lunches for $10, $15 or $20. New this year: KOP Shops for CHOP, a charity shopping day on Saturday, March 10. Both promotions benefit Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s KOP Specialty Care Center.
The Main Line’s getting its first Bra-and-Pony Show. The Haverford Square lingerie shop Hope Chest is bringing in a live pony (the famous “Bagel” from Thorncroft), along with free chair massages, chocolates, mini-makeovers, raffle prizes and more this Saturday, Feb. 24, 11 – 3. Twenty percent of sales will be donated to the Malvern therapeutic riding center that serves children and adults with disabilities. Giddyap.
The North Wayne Ave. portrait studio Little Nest is leaving the nest. Owner Lara Aman Mattey is breaking away from the Little Nest national franchise to do her own thing. She’s calling her new photography studio, Ivory Tree, a nod to the “pure light” in her photos and family trees.
A timely distinction in light of last week’s Parkland shootings: Radnor School District was just named the safest in the nation by Niche Media. Among the factors considered: parent/student safety surveys (50 %), student absenteeism, suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Also scoring high, T/E, which was ranked 5th in PA.
As usual, Main Line public high schools crushed the SATs last year. The PA Dept. of Education just released 2017 SAT rankings. Conestoga was ranked #3 in the state (after two public schools with “select” populations – Masterman and Downingtown STEM), Radnor was #4, Lower Merion #7, Harriton #A8, Great Valley tied for #15, and Haverford High tied for #47.
Longtime WMGK radio host and Haverford resident John DeBella, 66, is being sued by his six-year on-air side kick, Jen Posner, for sexual harassment. According to a suit filed Friday by Jennifer Neill (her real name), the DJ repeatedly subjected her to vulgar remarks, unwanted touching of her breasts and genitals, and requests for oral sex. The alleged details will make your skin crawl.
A hit at Bryn Mawr Village, the healthy fast food chain Bryn + Dane’s just opened at 615 Morehall Road, Malvern. They’re serving up steel cut oats, breakfast wraps, sandwiches and salads plus cold brew coffee, organic teas and draft kombucha from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Autograph alert: A flock of Eagles will be flying into Valley Forge Casino Resort next weekend for the Philadelphia Sportscard & Memorabilia Show. Tickets are $8/day or $18/weekend. Birds swooping in on Saturday, March 3 include Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Nelson Agholor, Trey Burton and Lane Johnson. In Sunday’s lineup: Carson Wentz, Jason “No One Likes Us and We Don’t Care” Kelce, Chris Long and many more.
A warm welcome to SAVVY’s February advertisers, new and old. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for supporting our little venture in relevant, readable community journalism. Click on their ads to learn more about: Day Spa by Zsuzsanna in Wayne; Christie’s/Long & Foster agent Sue McNamara; Woodlynde School for kids with learning differences; Restore Cryosauna/Chiropractic in Wayne and Haverford; Your Organizing Consultant Anna Sicalides, Mulholland-Peracchia real estate team at Berkshire Hathaway; and The Camera Shop in Bryn Mawr.
Want to partner with SAVVY? Our rates are reasonable and our reach is wide! Contact [email protected] or call 610-304-4996.
And finally: We’re still blissfully, unapologetically, Bird-brained
Witness the long lines at AFC Fitness for Wednesday’s meet-and-greet with endearingly brash Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills.
The President and CEO of the Bala Cynwyd fitness club is hometown Philly guy Matt Littman. An Eagles superfan, Littman tells SAVVY he happily paid “a small fortune” to bring in Mills to show his appreciation to AFC members and staff. The state-of-the-art workout/aquatics center is motoring along, now in its 27th year.
Mills’ appearance was also a little fundraiser. Twelve years ago CHOP performed emergency surgery on Littman’s newborn son and he’s been saying thank you ever since. To date, his fitness center has raised more than $25,000 for the children’s hospital.
Nice going, AFC.